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20 Years On, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Remains One Of The Best Movies About Heartbreak

4 min read
Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

“Why do I fall in love with every woman I see who shows me the least bit of attention?” Just one of the lines in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind that feels painfully relatable to anyone who’s experienced the post-breakup malaise. It’s amazing just how many of these lines the film has. Isn’t it a science-fiction movie? Yet despite its slippery, genre-defying nature, it remains one of the most powerful, thought-provoking movies about romance around.

Twenty years ago, Charlie Kaufman completed the hat trick by following two ground-breaking screenplays with a third. Named for a line from Alexander Pope’s 18th-century poem, the film began life as a philosophical allegory and continues to find new fans two decades later. Everything Everywhere All At Once co-director Daniel Scheinert called it “my undisputed champion” on the BFI Greatest Movie List, and Ariana Grande paid homage by naming an album for it, quoted in Billboard as saying “it’s always been a favourite of mine.” The film isn’t quite romantic or comic enough to be a romantic comedy, though it contains abundant elements of both. The two leads don’t end up together (as far as the ambiguous ending suggests), the relationships between the characters are unsettled and unhappy, and it defies almost every Hollywood convention. So what is it about the film that lets it retain its freshness all this time later?

Simply put, there is no other film like Eternal Sunshine. True originality will always stand the test of time, and this film is unmistakeably that. Its unique non-linear narrative structure means it starts at the end, with Joel Barish (played dramatically against type by Jim Carrey) spontaneously hitching a train to Montauk and encountering enigmatic stranger, Clementine (Kate Winslet) en route. As the film progresses, it’s revealed Joel and Clementine have met before – in fact, they’ve had an entire long-term relationship, broken up, and erased each other from their memories with the aid of a company called Lacuna. Then it’s back in time to see that relationship in its latter, acrimonious stages, and we follow Joel’s dark night of the soul as he embarks on the memory-wiping procedure.

The casting of the film is particularly smart and, perhaps ironically, part of what makes it so memorable. It’s worth noting just how popular the romcom was at the time, and how most of the leads – Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, Carrey — were ostensibly known for comedies, with Kate Winslet having built a name for herself in the most mainstream romantic dramas of the era, Titanic and Sense and Sensibility. Seeing such familiar stars subverting our expectations so drastically, the film has an element of the surreal from the get-go, and in rehearsals, Gondry wisely opted to further this effect by directing Carrey and Winslet differently. He told the Daily Beast: “Sometimes I had to talk to Kate Winslet in a different room to tell her, ‘Go as big as you want! This is a comedy!’ And to Jim, I’d say, ‘This is a drama, not a comedy.’” Paired with Charlie Kaufman’s penchant for otherworldly dialogue and a plot to rival Black Mirror, instant parallels are drawn with the world we’re seeing and the surreal nature of post breakup life. The film is “weird” because so is love and romance – the reality of it is that it rarely follows the Hollywood path, much to the chagrin of everyone trying to find love and wistfully hoping that path will run smooth.

Further securing its longevity is how something about the science-fiction premise feels closer to home now than in 2003. With dating apps linking us with people via algorithms, technology and romance are more intertwined than ever. Movies like Her and Ex Machina have taken these plots into different territory, but in the aftermath of Eternal Sunshine, we’ve also seen the rise of the “anti-rom-com” in movies that defy conventional romantic depictions — 500 Days of Summer, Blue Valentine and Before Midnight, where the couples either don’t end up together or spend much of the film’s duration arguing (maybe more true to life than we care to admit).

The film’s influence is prevalent, but most significantly, it’s a celebration of the messiness of love, the chaos two people create together. In embodying the idea that failure is an essential part of romance, Eternal Sunshine encourages us to question whether we too would undergo the procedure if given the chance. There’s something reassuringly poignant in Joel’s decision midway through that the procedure isn’t for him, and we root for his attempts to conceal a fragment of Clementine in his brain’s deepest recesses. It suggests the reckless painfulness and imperfection of romance has value, that the very pain we might seek to avoid can be transformative. Would we really want it any other way?